How to clean a thurible:
a brief tutorial
Louis J. Tofari
Cleaning thuribles is often considered as one of those unenviable sacristy tasks and thus postponed until it becomes a “necessary evil”.
This reluctance is somewhat universal, as evidenced when inspecting thuribles in most sacristies. A rather unfortunate situation, since this object has an important function during the sacred liturgy—to bear the burning incense used to bless and sanctify, and which arises as a sweet smelling cloud of prayer to Our Heavenly God. Thus the thurible should always be in pristine condition like the chalice, cruets, etc.
Hopefully this short tutorial will provide not only some tips on how to clean a thurible more easily, but also make this task more enjoyable and satisfactory.
It is a good idea to keep the tools listed below on hand in the sacristy for your thurible cleaning and polishing needs. As with the charcoal-lighting tools, these items should be reserved for working on thuribles solely, and never for items that come into contact with wax.
Small pair of needle-nose pliers
Flathead screw driver
SOS pad (or steel wool, extra fine coarse grade)
Polishing cloths (see below for type)
Degreasing solvent (as discussed below)
Polish (per metal type)
An easy way to remove the gummy incense resin build-up from a thurible is to soak it in carburetor cleaner, a degreasing solvent that can be obtained from any auto parts store. I recommend the 1-gallon can of carburetor cleaner that includes a submersible parts tray. The parts tray is handy for soaking the chains and other smaller parts (should you decide to take the thurible apart), while the height of the 1-gallon can allows for submerging most thuribles (should you prefer not to take it apart). For taller thuribles, a 5-gallon can is also available.
Carburetor cleaner is safe for thuribles made of solid brass, stainless steel, copper or silver. It is also safe for some plating finishes, such as nickel and silver—though I suggest testing an inconspicuous spot first on a gilded thurible (particularly of gold), before immersing the entire thurible or applying solvent on it. Turpentine, mineral spirits, and rubbing alcohol are also good degreasing alternatives [Note: some manufacturers recommend using turpentine, which will not remove plating (e.g., a brass-colored finished) used on some thurible chains].
Safety note: whatever the cleaning solvent, always use it in a well-ventilated area and away from any open flame, as even the fumes can potentially ignite. For health reasons, you may also want to consider wearing:
a breathing respirator,
shop glasses for eye protection,
and rubber gloves.
Cleaning the thurible
In the beginning… there was the firepot
The firepot, or inner liner, is the removable bowl in which the charcoals are actually placed—this is typically made of copper. Its function is not to only dissipate the heat from the decorative thurible bowl, but also to enable the removal of the spent charcoals and debris. Copper is also preferred as it will not corrode from the use of charcoals.
Since the firepot is usually the dirtiest part of the thurible, it's a good idea to clean it separately from the other parts.
First give it a good scraping with a flat-head screwdriver to remove any caked-on debris. Then submerge it in solvent (or you can fill the firepot with solvent or even brush it on) and allow it to sit for a few minutes. If the firepot has not been cleaned in awhile and has a few stubborn spots, consider submerging it overnight.
If the firepot has any corrosion (i.e., is tarnished green), spray or soak it with a lime remover such as Lime-A-Way or Jelmar and allow it to sit for a few minutes.
Then rinse out the firepot with warm, soapy water and give it a good scrubbing with steel wool until you are satisfied—an SOS pad is perfect for this job as it has the right coarseness and contains its own soap. Cleaners such as Ajax, Comet or Bar Keepers Friend can be used in combination with steel wool. When finished, rinse thoroughly with warm water and dry.
Then… there were the other thurible parts
You can either clean the thurible as one unit (which is slightly more difficult) or you can take it apart. The chains can be detached from the bowl and disk with a pair of needle nose pliers—be careful though (the eyelets are usually merely soldered to the bowl), and to avoid marking the metal, wrap the pliers’ teeth in a cloth.
Submerge the thurible parts or the entire thurible in the can of solvent—for a deep clean, overnight—otherwise, even soaking them for up to an hour will work. The solvent can also be brushed on the thurible or its parts for a light cleaning.
When satisfied with the results remove the thurible from the solvent and rinse it with mineral spirits by pouring (or brushing) it over the thurible parts. Then rinse the thurible parts thoroughly in warm, soapy water.
Carefully inspect the interior and exterior for any missed spots—if you find any, either re-soak, or apply solvent locally with a paint brush and rinse again with mineral spirits, then warm, soapy water.
Note: ensure that the thurible is rinsed completely of all solvent residue, otherwise when heated, it will reek with an unpleasant smell of burning solvent.
Save some elbow grease with brass and copper thuribles!
For brass and copper thuribles, if you next use a lime remover such as Lime-Away or Jemel, you can save a substantial amount of time and effort. The lime remover will chemically clean the metal, making it quicker to actually polish.
Spray or brush on the lime remover and allow it to sit for a few minutes; then rinse in warm water.
If the thurible is especially tarnished, it may be necessary to work in the lime remover into the details or flat surface with a cotton ball, Q-tip or cotton cloth. A blunted toothpick dipped in lime remover can also be used on engraved details or tight spots by crushing the tip or softening it up it in water.
Note: though applying the lime remover will revive the shiny look of brass or copper, it does not actually polish the metal or leave a protective coating.
Polishing the thurible: "wax on, wax off"
This next step depends on what type of metal the thurible is made of, hence what kind of polish and cloth fabric to use. The polish actually serves two purposes:
It polishes the metal.
It adds a protective layer against tarnish.
When polishing, you will need to use two cloths—one for applying the polish and removing any tarnish, and another for the final buffing.
To avoid leaving white reside, apply the polish very sparingly: a little goes a long way. You can more easily control the amount of polish used by pouring some in a shallow bowl and then carefully dabbing the cloth into it. You can also water down the polish a bit too.
When possible, apply and buff off the polish with a circular motion: "wax on". If necessary to do this vigorously, be sure to properly support and hold the part to avoid damaging it (e.g., by bending the metal). For detailed or hard-to-reach areas, a Q-tip or blunted toothpick dipped in polish is very effective.
Then thoroughly finish buff: "wax off". If despite your efforts white reside remains, trying buffing it out with a Q-tip dipped in water or even rubbing alcohol.
If your chains are solid brass, after spraying them with lime remover and rinsing them in warm, soapy water, scrub them with an old toothbrush that has been applied with some diluted brass cleaner. Rinse again with warm soapy water and a clean toothbrush, then vigorously buff them each several times with the cloth wrapped around the chains (and held tightly with your hand).
What type of polish to use
Brass polish is not only usable for its namesake, but also other metals indicated on the container—such as chrome, stainless steel and copper. However, never use brass polish on plated thuribles as the polish can strip off the plating.
For thuribles made of or plated with silver, nickel or gold, some special considerations are necessary—but first a quick lesson to understand why.
Thuribles made of solid silver are just that—solid silver (the same is true of nickel). The quality of the silver is a different matter though, and some grades include sterling, Britannica and even coin. In every case, you will find the manufacturer’s hallmark stamped on the various parts of the thurible (even the chains) if they are indeed truly silver. If merely plated though, this should be indicated on the underside of the foot (under the bowl).
Thuribles that are plated (i.e., gilded) are made of a base metal, usually of brass or copper, but even of sterling (which is optimum for gold gilding). The thurible parts are then subjected to an electroplating process that bonds a thin layer of plating over the base metal—like an onion skin. When the base metal is either brass or copper, sometimes it tarnishes under the plating.
Though ordinary silver polish will not polish brass or copper, there are three cleaners that can without adversely affecting the plating:
Hagerty Silversmiths' Spray Polish (this does an excellent job of polishing the underlying base metal)
Simichrome polish paste (another excellent polish that can be used for all non-ferrous metals)
Tarn-X metal cleaner (use sparingly though as this can be rather harsh—I would also recommend testing it on an inconspicuous spot first to ensure it does not remove any plating)
A word of caution about silver thuribles
If working with a silver thurible (solid or plated), you may find some details surrounded with a blackish haze. This isn’t tarnish—it's actually there on purpose to highlight these details and was chemically done during the manufacturing process. So don’t try to polish it out.
Polishing a nickel, silver or gold thurible
To protect nickel, silver and gold finishes:
Use only silver polish.
Use only pure flannel as a polishing cloth—other fabrics can leave fine scratches.
Pure flannel can be purchased by the yard in any fabric store and is rather inexpensive (note: this cloth does not work well for brass).
Flannel is actually cotton, so you can also use cotton balls and Q-tips for these metals; a blunted toothpick is also safe for engraved details. However, never use a toothbrush nor any type of abrasive material (e.g., steel wool—even super fine grade), as this will not only scratch these kinds of metals, but will also wear through the plating.
The steps are essentially the same as for a brass thurible, except do not use lime remover—go straight to the step of applying silver polish.
A final word about lacquered thuribles and plated chains
Many ecclesiastical ware manufacturers spray coat their brass thuribles with a high-heat resistance clear coat of lacquer. While this prevents the thurible from requiring polishing, over time the burning incense resin can be absorbed by the coating, thus darkening it.
Some companies will accommodate requests to obtain a non-lacquered thurible directly from the factory. Otherwise, you can remove this coating by soaking the thurible overnight in paint remover (or acetone), then polishing it as described above.
If your thurible is lacquered, you cannot follow all of the steps that have been provided in this instructional. But a manufacturer did confirm that you can use turpentine:
We recommend using turpentine to remove incense residue from censers. Turpentine will not harm the lacquer on the censer. Let the pieces of the censer soak in the turpentine to loosen up the residue. Then you can use a soft paint brush to help remove the residue. When you use turpentine, make sure you are in a well-ventilated area and away from flames. Turpentine is flammable. Make sure to allow 24 hours before use to ensure all the turpentine has been evaporated.
It should also be mentioned that many newer thuribles do not come with solid brass or nickel chains, but rather have been plated with that metal. Here again, turpentine will not remove this metallic finish.
How often should a thurible be cleaned?
If used frequently (say every Sunday), the thurible should be polished at least once a month, though you may also wish to spruce it up before then too.
The firepot on the other hand should be thoroughly scraped out after every use (i.e., between each run of charcoals during Mass and before storing it away) to keep it as clean as possible—the cleaner the firepot, the better the incense will smell.
Exterior touch-ups between thorough cleanings
Some places wipe the thurible cover down with rubbing alcohol after Mass to remove some of the incense residue, followed by a quick polish.
For brass, chrome or copper thuribles a good touch-up polish is Never-Dull (a cotton wad impregnated with polish). Polishing cloths impregnated with polish are also available both for brass and precious metals.
Now enabled with these tips, hopefully you will be able to enjoy your sacristy's next thurible cleaning session!
1 Some suggested polishes are: Brasso and Simichrome for brass, chrome and copper; for silver, nickel, or gold: Wright's, Weiman, Hagerty, Simichrome.
2 An alternative to carburetor cleaner is either mineral spirits or even rubbing alcohol.
3 The firepot is an important component of every thurible. If it’s missing from your thurible, you can order a replacement through a Catholic church supply company. If your thurible is not a “standard edition”, then consider having a sheet metal manufacturer make one from copper or even galvanized steel.
4 I do not suggest the Silvo brand by the makers of Brasso—this silver polish tends to be rather harsh.